31 Jan 2022

Extended Covid-19 restrictions taking toll on public sentiment - psychologist

9:18 pm on 31 January 2022

We are just two months shy of the two-year anniversary of New Zealand's first nationwide lockdown, but for some, the "team of five million" sentiment feels like years ago.

Man wearing a facemask waiting at the intersection for the green pedestrian light. Roadwork traffic cones along the street.

Way back in the first lockdown, New Zealanders got behind the "team of five million" sentiment and were able to stamp out community transmission (file image). Photo: 123RF

Clinical psychologist Dr Sarb Johal said years of living under the so-called "new normal" is adding up.

"When people first started having to go to the shops to get their own food and having to think very carefully about every single step that they took, in terms of managing their exposure, getting out of the car, getting into the supermarket, getting it home, all of these actions start to add up and it feels quite wearing," he said.

"And when you're superimposing this on a background where people are already feeling quite fatigued and tired, then that can happen quite quickly."

He expects some people will quickly feel tired and "over it" when Omicron case numbers really ramp up.

Adding to that, we're now re-framing how we live with Covid-19.

Johal said early on, New Zealand anchored to the idea of eliminating the virus and many people see the daily case numbers as proof of the strategy working or not.

But Covid-19 modellers say we could see case numbers as high as 1000 a day in the next week.

"What we need to be paying attention to is what does that signal to us?

"And it may not signal, necessarily, that it's unexpected or that we are in any kind of significantly increased danger, so long as we are behaving in ways that maintain our safety in the face of the new threat," he said.

"I think that's the big psychological shift that we need to make, what can we do in this new uncertain environment that continues to keep us as safe as possible?"

Way back in the first lockdown, New Zealanders got behind the "team of five million" sentiment and were able to stamp out community transmission.

Strategic political communications expert Dr Edward Elder likened getting the public onboard with major shifts - like public health measures to suppress the virus - to a seesaw.

"On one end of the seesaw you've got your responsiveness, so are you showing that you are respectful of criticism from the public or concerns and that sort of thing," he said.

"Then on the other end, you've got your leadership, so making tough decisions, communicating that you're making tough decisions, but also that you're competent about it.

"What is the pillar to the seesaw, so to speak, is credibility, which comes from: do the public trust you, are you seen as honest."

Elder said the government was able to balance that well in the early days of the virus, but now people needed a new goal to get behind.

"[The government] showing it understands the hardships people have faced around the pandemic and communicating that ... but then, maybe communicating, clearly, the new end goal the government is trying to get to in a way that is not just palatable to the public, but that that brings them in."

Elder said public trust was vital for the government to hold going forward, as well as appearing competent, and to be seen acting quickly in the face of Omicron.

He said targeted campaigns around the vaccine, boosters and public health measures needed to lean on trusted community leaders or role models and be colloquial to them - rather than a teenager reading a script that sounds like it's been written by a bureau.

Auckland University politics lecturer Dr Lara Greaves said there was no data to show public sentiment towards Covid-19 measures had turned.

She said the government was walking a tightrope between helping people understand the seriousness of Covid-19 and scaring them.

"There is an optimal amount of fear that's needed," she said.

"You don't want to have no fear, but you don't want to have too much fear, because there's been decades of academic literature showing that if people are too afraid, or they're feeling too much of an emotion, they don't absorb the message as well.

"There has to be some level of fear, so people act and so people do actually get it together and they do realize that it's happening, but not too much that they overreact or they shut down in some way."

She said it was a tricky task to balance, and was something that would continue to play out through the Omicron outbreak.

"I don't know, at this point, what an effective pandemic response or communication would look like, because we are really coming from a place of strength and a place where no one else in the world really is at, so it's just very tricky, and very, classically, unprecedented."

Greaves said there needed to be more research done on the public's mood - what people were thinking and feeling now about the pandemic - because much of the data was anecdotal.

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